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'Viennese Artistry,' a new 'unfestival' for those in the know

Music is intense and tickets free, but conductor Kent Nagano and his pianist wife are keeping the concerts hush-hush.

June 18, 2003|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — The official name, "Musical Days in Forest Hill: An Exploration of Viennese Artistry," is lofty, and musicians from the Vienna Philharmonic are participating. But conductor Kent Nagano jokes that the new festival he and his wife, the pianist Mari Kodama, began Sunday in their San Francisco neighborhood is really an "unfestival" festival. And there is little official about the four nights of chamber music in the local clubhouse, which has a legal capacity of 80.

Tickets were free, but to get one, you had to know about the concerts. And to know about them, you pretty much have to live nearby. The Forest Hill Assn. put a one-line announcement in its newsletter. The rest was word of mouth. There are no listings in the Bay Area newspapers and weeklies. There is no Web site, no public telephone number for information. Yet the tickets were snapped up.

Nagano, who lives a 10-minute walk up the hill from the Forest Hill Club House, says he wanted to show his appreciation for his tight-knit community, where he has long been a resident and where neighbors keep an eye on his house when he is away as music director of Los Angeles Opera and the German Symphony Orchestra Berlin. He and his wife, with her own performing career, are home only half the year.

More than that, Nagano also felt that classical music festivals have become commercial extravaganzas. Useful contact between artists and their audiences is rare, and programming is designed to sell tickets.

Nagano decided instead to "aim for the highest, not the lowest, common denominator." He engaged Christian Meyer, director of the Arnold Schoenberg Center in Vienna, as artistic director and chose a theme of classical and 20th century music with a connection to Vienna, though he did not stick to it rigorously. Members of the community offered some financial support and housing for the visiting players, and Nagano has paid for the rest himself.

A symbol of Nagano's unfestival festival is the splendid clubhouse. It was designed by the visionary Bay Area architect Bernard Maybeck in 1919 and built by residents on weekends. It is a beloved brick-and-wood Arts and Crafts structure, funky yet grand. Its high-vaulted, beamed ceiling and massive fireplace are set off by quirky green doors, window sills and designs.

Nagano also lives in a Maybeck house, and his account of how he bought it explains much about his feeling for Forest Hill, which is southwest of downtown San Francisco and near Twin Peaks. He had owned a small house in Forest Hill, but when he got married eight years ago, he needed something larger. Nothing suitable was available in the neighborhood.

But when he told the community caretaker that he was planning to move away, the caretaker said, "You can't do that. What house would you like?" Kodama pointed to an imposing 1916 Maybeck. The caretaker marched up to the door, rang the bell and said to the owners, "Mr. and Mrs. Grace, you must sell your house to the Naganos. Otherwise they will leave the neighborhood. And you have to give it to them at a price that artists can afford." The couple said they had been thinking of retiring to a small winery they owned in Sonoma County, and that was that.

The sense of community was evident Monday night, when Kodama performed with four Viennese string players. The audience was well dressed, and most people seemed to know one another, although Nagano said that some outsiders had found their way in -- even someone from the rival St. John Wood, the next hill over. A few notable guests had been invited, including several Bay Area architects and Maybeck aficionados.

The concert itself proved a curious mix of formality and informality. The performers wore concert dress, but they also served as their own stagehands, moving chairs and music stands. Nagano made an announcement from the stage holding his 4-year-old daughter. Children were permitted to bang away on the piano during intermission and the post-performance reception.

However, there was nothing casual about the performances of Brahms' Piano Quartet in G Minor, Schoenberg's "Ode to Napoleon" and Schumann's E-flat Piano Quintet. The room has a lively, immediate sound, and the string players did not scale back, making little compromise for the intimate surroundings or the fact that the room could hold only a baby grand. Kodama is not without strength, but she has other virtues as well, and I would have preferred string players more sensitive to her graceful phrasing and subtle sense of coloration. Still, the sheer impact of such intense music-making was arresting. Michael Ingham recited the Byron text of Schoenberg's "Ode to Napoleon" ferociously.

Each of the four programs is striking. Sunday night's recital by Kodama and her sister Momo included two-piano transcriptions of Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra and Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," along with readings of poems by the painter Wassily Kandinsky.

After a break Tuesday so that Nagano could return to Los Angeles to conduct "Don Giovanni," the Vienna Philharmonic's principal oboist, Clemens Horak, is scheduled to join the unfestival tonight in a program of Mozart and Britten and a world premiere by the Polish composer Zdzislaw Wysocki. Thursday, the string trio is to return for Mozart, Beethoven, Schoenberg, Ernst Krenek and the contemporary American composer Jack Brimberg.

Nagano says he doesn't know whether the unfestival can be an ongoing event; he'll see. But when he meets up with these players again next month, there'll be no "un" about it. He will be conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in a production of Offenbach's "Tales of Hoffmann" at the Salzburg Festival.

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